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Every Page Is a Story in Superman: Up in the Sky

A while ago, Atomic Robo writer Brian Clevinger posted a breakdown of how a comic story should be structured that changed how I look at comic pages. As you’d expect, Clevinger detailed how story arcs should be structured and how issues within those arcs should be structured. But what really blew my mind was Clevinger’s explanation of how each page within a story should be structured. If you read a single page of a comic, Clevinger posited, it should function as a little mini-story of its own. Something substantial and meaningful should happen, such that the page feels like a complete narrative unit itself while also continuing the larger story.

Since reading Clevinger’s post, I’ve been on the lookout for comics that fulfill his “every page a story” criteria especially well. Which is what made me want to write about Tom King, Andy Kubert, and co.’s Superman: Up in the Sky – possibly the best example of “every page a story” that I’ve yet read.

Up in the Sky is the Superman story that ran in DC’s Walmart Giants comics. Each issue of Superman Giant included a 12-page chapter of the story, any of which could have been some reader’s introduction to not only Up in the Sky, but Superman comics as a whole.

I have to think that this fact, that random readers might happen upon random chapters of the story, influenced how King and co. chose to structure Up in the Sky. As you’d expect, each chapter is a complete and satisfying little sub-story, which can be read without knowing much about the larger whole. But going even further, the creative team turned most every page of Up in the Sky into its own condensed story, which can be read and enjoyed divorced even from the issue in which it takes place.

This is absolutely why pages from Up in the Sky turn up on Reddit’s various comic book forums so much. Every so often, you’ll see the page in which Superman discusses who would win in a fight between him and Batman make an appearance, or the page in which Superman discusses faith, or the page in which Superman beats the Flash in a race, or the page in which … well, you get the idea. Those pages are perfect, sharable, and satisfying moments: tiny mini-stories you can share with literally anyone who knows anything about Superman, and get them to crack a smile or pump their fist.

Seeing these pages on Reddit is actually what convinced me to pick up Superman: Up in the Sky. There is a version of Tom King, I think, that would actually write a quite dour, Sisyphean Superman, who works and works and never accomplishes anything. Who would position Superman’s Never-Ending Battle as a series of losses, rather than a series of victories. Thankfully, and as you’ve likely gathered from the pages posted here, that’s not the Tom King who showed up to write Up in the Sky. This King gets Superman incredibly well. He understands that being Superman is hard work, and a responsibility, and sometimes a thankless task. But he also understands that Superman doesn’t do what he does to be thanked. He does it because it’s right. And while he might suffer setbacks, King’s Superman always wins, in ways that feel like real, meaningful victories. (Of note, the other reason I grabbed Up in the Sky was Super-scribe Grant Morrison’s praise for King’s take on Superman.)

Up in the Sky is, in addition to being a quite heartfelt book, also a quite funny one. Many of those one-page stories I’ve been talking about end with a punchline, not an intense cliffhanger or sentimental moment. I didn’t entirely expect this from Up in the Sky, but I certainly welcomed it upon reading. Multiple times, I had to set this book down, because King, Kubert, and co. had so expertly executed a one-page gag that had me rolling with laughter, or calling my wife into the room so I could tell it to her.

If I have an issue with Up in the Sky, it’s with King’s overreliance on the “he’s Superman” trope to explain why Superman manages to persevere despite impossible odds. Reading the story in one shot, the many impressive moments in which Superman’s allies or enemies express awe at his seemingly-singular willpower and determination become just a bit less impressive, because there are so very many of them. (I eventually had the same problem wth Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who, which became so reliant on the phrase “He’s the Doctor” as plot armor for its protagonist.) Repeating the same phrase over and over again makes it less powerful and special. However, I’d imagine I wouldn’t care quite so much if I’d been reading this story in its original monthly format, or even over the course of a few days, instead of the couple hours in which I devoured it.

Which brings me around, finally, to discussing Up in the Sky‘s larger story. It’s simple: Superman must rescue a young girl who has been abducted from Earth and taken into space. However, King unpacks this seemingly-simple story a bit, examining what it means for Superman to take time away from Earth and out of his life to rescue just one girl, as well as why he feels he needs to do so. (Spoiler: He’s Superman.) This examination makes Superman’s eventual success, and his ability to backdoor his way into protecting Earth at the same time, that much more meaningful.

The last chapter of Up in the Sky serves as a coda to the larger story, but also a way for King, Kubert, and co. to serve up a few more of those single-page stories that make Up in the Sky so memorable. The “Superman Vs. Batman” page I mentioned above takes place here, as does the page in which Superman discusses faith. But the standout best page of Up in the Sky‘s last chapter has to be the one in which the young girl, Alice, asks Superman how he flies, and comes to the conclusion that he is propelled through the air by the power of Supertoots:

It is these distilled moments that make Superman: Up in the Sky not just a single modern classic Superman story, but actually several classics in one. Page for page, it might be the most memorable Superman comic I’ve ever read – because nearly every of its 144 pages is a story in and of itself.


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